The September

Get to know a Toronto startup: The September

We Canadians have developed plenty of sneaky tricks that help us get what comes easily (and inexpensively) to the mailboxes of American shoppers. There's the cousin living in the States who flies your online purchases home, the P.O. box you opened in a town just across the border, or the forwarding service that mails you what couldn't be shipped to Canada.

Christine Carlton and Aynsley Wintrip Harris saw that desperation among Canadian shoppers - and then they spied a business opportunity. Last year, the two longtime friends (and former university roommates) pooled their years of experience in communications and high-end retail to launch The September, a for-Canadians, by-Canadians e-commerce site stocked with the highest-of-the-high-end designer shoes.

I asked the two founders about Canadian e-commerce, the less-glamorous sides of the luxury accessories biz and, of course, shoes.

What's the inspiration behind The September?

Really, the idea came from recognizing the gap in the market. I, for one, was spending more and more time shopping online, just because I didn't have the time to go out as much as I probably would have liked to. Your options are really limited to U.S. and international sites, and of course when you shop those sites, you have duty, shipping, and taxes -- all of that adds up significantly. I reached out to Christine and said 'Why is this? why are there so few options for Canadians?' So we decided we should look into it and see if we couldn't make it happen ourselves.

Why focus on shoes?

It was sort of the first thing that came to mind! It's certainly a shoe 'moment,' you know, the last couple years. I think a lot of it started with Sarah Jessica Parker and Sex And The City - she short of made shoes iconic. We just felt it was the best place to start.

What has been your biggest challenge in launching the site?

I would say, for us, a lot of the challenges have been around technology. As much as e-commerce is firmly established globally, I think it's somewhat in its infancy in Canada. We just don't have as many options in terms of partners for technology and e-commerce sites, et cetera. And also, of course, it's not our forte...I would say technology has been, I don't want to say the biggest challenge, but the biggest learning (curve) for us.

Who do you consider your competition?

I think our competition is international, you know. If you're asking purely about e-commerce, then our competition would be somewhat international. Otherwise, it would currently be brick and mortar stores. But we like to think that in terms of e-commerce players in Canada, we don't have competition! (laughs) That's the beauty of it.

What styles have been flying off the shelves? Did they surprise you at all?

There's always what we call the 'usual suspects'. Michael Kors sold very well - it's a very well-established, recognizable brand. In terms of what the surprise was, I would say we had a tremendous amount of success with one of the newer brands we launched, Aquazzura. It's done very well, and they had a great selection at a great price point. I would say that's definitely a surprise winner.

How are you building a community around the site, so it's not just a one-way shopping experience?

We thought it would be interesting and a little bit different to profile Canadian women - not celebrity Canadian women, but more everyday Canadian women who have exceptional style. Over the course of the month we feature the same person, and each week her story changes out. She might be a mother, and we talk about how she dresses day to day, doing the things she does with her children.

She might also be involved in a charity, so we can explore that. If she travels, we can tell a travel story and get recommendations from her on how to experience a destination. What we found is that people are really responding to it. People tell us that they read every word, and look at every photo, and that's fantastic.

Also, we use Facebook, we use Twitter, we just started Instagram, and we will be launching Pinterest very shortly. It's all about leveraging that inspiration that is built around those style profiles.

What's your office space like?

We're at Dupont and Dundas. It's an old rubber factory - in fact, hockey pucks used to be made here. It doesn't get any more Canadian than working out of a hockey puck factory! It's a very small space - we're working out of less than 500 feet. (The stocking and shipping is outsourced to Brampton.) We love the Junction neighbourhood. It's new to both of us, and it's a great neighbourhood we've enjoyed exploring.

What's ahead for 2014?

We have deliveries coming in regularly. Every week to two weeks, new shipments will arrive, and come June, which is really the beginning of the fall season, we'll be adding in more brands. So I think customers can expect to see more newness every time they come back to the site.

One of the things that's always been important to us was really to get in front of our customer as much as we possibly can. As a digital business, you have certain challenges with regards to developing relationships with your customers. So we're planning a series of intimate customer events where we can be face-to-face with them, where we can show them some products and allow them to touch and feel and try it on, and then encourage them to visit our site from there.

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